Is Vegetarianism Really Less of an Impact? Exploring Our Human Impacts

Join the Human Impacts Institute‘s community conversation! Where does your food come from?


There has always been much debate as to whether or not reducing consumption of meat, and relying more on vegetable-based diets, would reduce our impact on the environment. While most scientists argue that the cultivation, production, packaging and transportation of meat has an overall larger impact on the environment, whereas the same process for vegetables does not, is it really that black and white?

Consensus is that animals have a larger impact on the environment than plants, particularly in regards to land and water use, water and air pollution, habitat and packaging of the product.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that meat production can take up to as much as 6 to 17 times more land, 4 to 26 times as much water, and 6 to 20 times as many fossil fuels than vegetable production, and the Union of Concerned Scientists state that meat uses up to 20 times the land and generated almost three times more greenhouse gas emissions than does the production of vegetables.

So is eating meat the problem or is it the how we acquire the meat the real problem? Consuming meat does not make the planet warmer, rather the production, packaging and shipping of the meat that we eventually consume is the real problem! This can also be said about vegetables.

Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Eating Animals believes that vegetarianism is not always more environmentally friendly, especially if the meat is being produced in a sustainable and environmentally responsible manner. If a vegetarian is only eating organic foods shipped from far away places such as Chile, then they are also contributing to the demise of the planet. A vegetarian consumer who indulges in over-processed soy products such as chik’n nuggets can potentially be harming the environment more than those who buy meat that has been “sustainably raised and locally procured.”

When local is compared with local, vegetables have less of an impact, however when locally and sustainably produced meats are compared to that of over-processed soy products, meat has less of an impact.

So this is great, If we consume locally procured, sustainably produced meat then we have nothing to worry about! Wrong. It is sad to say that most Americans do not actually consume this type of meat; most of the meat Americans consume actually comes from factory farms, “where environmental destruction is the rule.”

So where does that leave us? Must we cut meat out of our diets completely or is there something else we can do?

Jonathan Foer believes that the question should not be whether meat is the enemy, rather, we should be asking whether or not it would be better for the planet to reduce the amount of meat we consume.

I agree with him, especially about the notion that it should not be meat vs vegetables, rather less meat and more vegetables. After all, not everyone has the privilege or accessibility to foods that would allow one to become a ‘full-fledged’ vegetarian. And even if they did, they would still have to be consuming locally produced vegetables in order to make a large difference (which can be quite expensive).

So the moral of the story is, if you are going to indulge in meat, eat wisely. And if you want to help the planet some more, cut a single serving of meat a week out of your diet. After all, if Americans were to give up a measly serving of meat once a week it would be the equivalent of removing approximately 5 million cars off the road! Folks, that is a significant amount of cars.

By Muge ‘Mugzy’ Undemir, 2011 Human Impacts Institute Climate and Coalition Building Intern

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